Francisco Rodriguez had a fantastic season in 2008, where he set the single-season save record and was the most valuable relief pitcher in fantasy baseball. But conventional wisdom says to avoid Rodriguez this year in fantasy drafts. It would be one thing if analysts said that he was likely to have 20 fewer saves this season and left it at that. Instead, they talk about how Rodriguez has had four years of declining peripherals and is on the verge of losing his effectiveness as a relief pitcher.
Rodriguez has declining peripherals has been repeated so often that it is now virtually an urban myth. And like with all urban myths, you should politely nod and completely ignore it.
In 2004, Rodriguez had a 13.18 K/9 ratio. Anyone who expected him to maintain that rate the rest of his career was not being realistic. His 10.14 K/9 in 2008 was the 15th-best mark in the majors. Rodriguez is in a lose-lose scenario with analysts in regards to his strikeout rate. Any higher and they would claim it was unsustainable. And now that it’s not in the top 10, it’s a huge warning sign that he’s lost his stuff.
To further back up this point, people will tell you that his velocity has shown a similar drop the past few seasons. In 2006, his average fastball velocity was 94.8 mph while last year it was 91.9, a significant drop.
Rodriguez himself claims that the velocity drop last year was due to his adding a changeup. He intentionally threw his fastball with less velocity in order to keep his changeup delivery consistent. Furthermore, Rodriguez claims that he has mastered the changeup and that the delivery is no longer an issue.
Now, it’s one thing to make those kinds of proclamations. It’s another thing entirely for them to stand up to the scrutiny of examining numbers. Did Rodriguez throw harder later in the year than he did at the beginning?
According to Dan Brooks’ PitchFX tool, in his outing on April 29, Rodriguez’ average fastball was 91.99 mph while his maximum checked in at 92.6. Fast forward to September and we see a different story. On September 24 his average was 93.67 while his maximum was 95.3. And that is not cherry picking his best September performance. Check any of his outings in the month and you will see average and maximum velocities significantly higher than what he did in April and more in line with what he did in 2006, his top average velocity year for the four seasons in which we have data.
The doubters will then turn to his walk rate. Last year, Rodriguez allowed 4.48 BB/9, a truly bad number. But this doesn’t fit into the declining peripherals storyline, as he posted a 4.54 mark the previous season. Additionally, we see that Rodriguez struggled with walks in April. In 2008, he had six outings in which he gave up two or more walks and four of those came in the first month of the season.
In the second half of last year, Rodriguez had a 2.73 BB/9. And if we just eliminate April, his BB/9 was 3.97, nearly half a walk per game lower than it was for the entire season.
Another factor to consider in addition to working in a new pitch is that Rodriguez suffered from an ankle injury in April.
Now we have the additional knowledge that Rodriguez will be pitching in the National League in 2009. He won’t have to face designated hitters, frequently one of the top hitters on an opposing team. And while Rodriguez won’t get to face any pitchers, last year pinch hitters in the National League posted a .229/.317/.345 line. Now, Rodriguez will likely fact the top PH but they will still produce lines inferior to the designated hitters he is used to facing.
Taken all together, there is no sound reason to predict a massive decline for Rodriguez in 2009. Yes, his save numbers will likely take a big hit. But given his age, track record and switch to the National League there is no reason not to slot him as one of the top relievers in the game. While others may back away from Rodriguez, this gives smart fantasy owners a chance to get one of the top relievers in the game at a relative bargain.